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Passing It On

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As teachers, we touch many lives. Sometimes we know the effect, but often we do not. Last week, when I received an email from Shirley Bolden -- a former InsideOut Literary Arts Project student in middle school, recently a reporter with B.L.A.C. (Black Life Arts and Culture) magazine, and now a Teach for America trainee in Texas -- I had the pleasure of spreading the word to a very special teacher. The email wasn't for me. I had promised to forward it to Shirley's former InsideOut teaching poet, Dr. Gloria Nixon-John, with whom she had lost touch.

The timing couldn't have been better. It was Gloria's birthday (although neither Shirley nor I knew this). Gloria's new book The Killing Jar has just come out and her former Troy High student Stacy Parker Aab and I have been planning a party. Not only did Gloria affect the lives of countless high school students, but she affected me at a crucial juncture in my life as a writer and teacher as well.

It was 1988 and I had moved from teaching middle school to high school, to teaching creative writing, and to finding my way as a poet. I had only written one or two poems at the time, but I was hooked. It was new and exciting territory, and I sought out colleagues who shared these passions. Through Michigan Council of Teachers of English I found Peninsula Poets, an informal group of teachers who shared a passion for writing, and through them I found Gloria.

Gloria immediately opened her heart and her treasure trove of writing and teaching tips, and we became friends. We met in one another's homes, contributed to a book on writing pedagogy, and organized a suburban-urban exchange between her writing classes at Troy High School and mine at Detroit's Mumford High School -- an eye-opening exchange for both groups.

Gloria was faculty advisor for Troy High's literary magazine Espial, which, with its professionally printed cover and student art, showed me what was possible in publishing students' work. In that, as well as her spirit and dedication to students, Gloria was a model, and much of what became InsideOut Literary Arts Project began in those early conversations with her. After she completed her Ph.D., Gloria worked as a writer-in-residence for InsideOut at Coffey Middle School. I like to think her passion lives on at IO as well, especially in the caliber of writers we send into classrooms. IO is blessed to have writers, like 2012 Kresge Arts in Detroit literary fellow Peter Markus, who echoes Gloria's passion and rare ability to make a love of words transformational in the lives of students.

It's a gift better illustrated through Shirley's own heartfelt words to Gloria. With her permission, I reprint the letter here.

Gloria,

You saved my life. I mean that literally and figuratively.

I was in the InsideOut Literary Arts Coffey Middle School cohort in 2001-2002. That year, I was a new student at Coffey and had just entered the foster care system. I wasn't just some seventh grader in the library, sitting around a desk, waiting to be told how to write a poem; I was a kid waiting for salvation. I was headed for the same trajectory that many of the other individuals who were funneled through the foster care system were. Many women end up on welfare, raising children while they are still children, because they never really had any parents. Many of us end up in jails. Many of us grow up emotionally scarred and never really move past our childhoods.

I went to Michigan State University and earned a bachelors degree in Journalism. I learned to write in nearly every way possible. I have now written everything from short stories, poems, articles, blogs, editorials, commentaries and opinion articles. Gloria, if you had not introduced me to words and the power of storytelling, those things would not have been possible. Today, I live my life by the personal story. I believe it is every individual's tool for healing, self-awareness and esteem. While foster care was no picnic, I was able to navigate my way through it with a notebook and pen.

In a true sense of irony, one day I was assigned to interview Terry Blackhawk for B.L.A.C. Detroit, a magazine I was interning for. When she started talking about the program, I realized there was something familiar. Sure enough, she found the book, Changing Faces from Coffey School that InsideOut had published for us. In that moment triumph made sense. I remembered when I was introduced to words and storytelling. I remember essentially when I became me.

In an even greater ironic twist, I am now in Teach For America, a program that trains recent college graduates as teachers in ailing school districts to assist in education reform. I will be teaching 7th grade writing. You made that possible for me. Many of the kids in my classroom are foster children like I was. So, let me make a correction, you saved plenty of lives.

This is not just a thank you. It is my acknowledgement of the fact that you paid a debt in my childhood that hoisted me into adulthood. I would still be crying because my parents suffered from drug addiction. I would still suffer through sleepless nights because of sexual abuse. I would still lament for the day I was removed from my Grandmother's home for my second round of foster care. I don't do those things. I write about them. I am headed into a classroom where I will help kids like me write their stories. Thank you -- from me and all of them.

Sincerely,
Shirley Bolden

Please join us Friday July 13th 6 to 8 pm at the Detroit Artists Market, for a reading and reception honoring this remarkable woman, Dr. Gloria Nixon-John.